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Why childcare must be a priority to restart the economy

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Recent reports about the “feminization” of unemployment, the long-term impact of this on women’s earnings and career advancement, and sound bites from debates and Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign stump speeches have focused on women’s vulnerability during the Covid crisis. Small wonder, as we face a third spike in cases, that mothers are more likely than fathers to quit their jobs or cut their hours to stay home and care for their children who are doing distance learning or unable to attend childcare. What can Americans do to dig themselves out of this ever-deepening hole?

In America, our approach to caring for and educating preschoolers is market-based. We expect parents to pay for childcare and preschool on their own dime so that they can work. As a result, the average American family spends nearly one third of their income on childcare, a small fortune compared to the 4 to 10 percent spent by families in Scandinavian nations, where childcare is paid for on a sliding scale and subsidized by the government.

Market-based childcare is celebrated in the U.S. for, supposedly, providing varied options that meet different families’ tastes and needs. But the truth is that the market-based approach suppresses childcare worker wages, as well as the quality of childcare. Because of this market-driven devaluation, our society tends to regard the childcare worker as performing scut work, something you do after graduating high school before something better (college, or a “real job”) comes along. It’s most appropriate for, say, an (uneducated and undocumented) immigrant woman whose only other options might be agricultural work or house cleaning.

The progressive left has paid lots of lip service to caregiving as a long-neglected and underappreciated sector of American life, but has done little to advance real change in this arena (see for example, the multiple State of the Union speeches Barack Obama gave advocating universal pre-K, but the lack of a fight for the policy on a federal level). We won’t be able to recover from the COVID-19 recession if we don’t produce a new crop of good jobs, jobs that further the values we care about. Biden has talked about this in grand, vague ways, but that’s not enough. We need to get clear and specific about our priorities, and how we’re going to achieve them.

First, we need to re-frame the way we talk and think about care work. Taking care of a child isn’t mindless work that any uneducated person with nothing better to do can take on. It requires training and experience in early childhood development. Caretakers teach our children to feel confident, loved and cared for so that they can fully develop their human capital. They keep them safe.

We need to recruit compassionate people who like and understand kids to be caregivers, and give them the training they need to do this job well. Caretakers should be well-paid, respected, and put in roles that come with benefits like health insurance and paid vacation and sick leave. Countries in Europe have demonstrated that providing good pay and benefits for important jobs will not cut into our economic bottom line. These investments pay for themselves, many times over: Jobs teaching in accredited pre-K and childcare programs are at least as economically productive as ones mining coal, because they produce well-educated, content children who grow into productive adults.

Whether the federal government will step up to the plate will depend on the outcomes of the presidential and Senate races that are coming up. But some American states have been real innovators in the field of childcare, even solidly red ones like Oklahoma, which has universal pre-K for all children starting at age four. The lesson? There’s nothing partisan about wanting every child to have a good start in life, and providing care programs that do this universally and affordably.

Patricia Boling, Ph.D., is an expert in comparative social policy and has authored a number of books and articles on work-family policies, including “The Politics of Work-Family Policies, Comparing Japan, France Germany and the United States.” She is a Professor of Political Science at Purdue University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.

Tags Barack Obama childcare Coronavirus Joe Biden pre-K universal pre-K

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